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Fifth Circuit Reinstates Dallas County Jail Excessive Force Suit

Fifth Circuit Reinstates Dallas County Jail Excessive Force Suit

by Matt Clarke

On July 17, 2014, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the widow of a former Texas prisoner alleging excessive use of force by guards at the Dallas County Jail.

Gregory Maurice Kitchen was a pretrial detainee at the jail in January 2010 when he was seen “digging through other detainees’ personal property” and “mumbling, walking backwards, and avoiding eye contact.” He was transferred to the jail’s medical unit in the West Tower for a psychiatric evaluation. Once there he urinated on himself, said he heard his mother’s voice, cried and admitted to having suicidal thoughts. After he was observed hitting his head on the cell door and walls, he was taken to a nursing station for evaluation but “broke free from the guards, started screaming, and grabbed one of the nurses.” He was then placed in a restraint chair and later transferred to the jail’s North Tower administrative segregation unit.

The next day, a prisoner in a nearby cell attempted suicide. While jail guards were responding to that incident, Kitchen began screaming obscenities, crying out for his mother and banging his head against the bars. Guards conducted a cell extraction to take him to a restraint chair; they admitted performing a “neck controlled take down” and using pepper spray. Restrained and lying on the floor, Kitchen stopped breathing and died.

An autopsy report found his death to be a homicide caused by “complications of physical restraint including mechanical asphyxia,” due to “neck restraint during struggle” and “one officer kneeling on the decedent’s back during restraint.” Additional factors included physiological stress, morbid obesity, cardiomegaly (an enlarged heart) and exposure to pepper spray.

Kitchen’s wife, Denise, filed a civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging excessive use of force and bystander liability against nine jail guards, among other claims. The defendants moved for summary judgment. Denise Kitchen filed eyewitness affidavits from four former prisoners who said the guards had “kicked, choked and stomped on the deceased after he had already been restrained” and “used pepper spray on the deceased multiple times after he had stopped resisting.” The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants in April 2013, dismissing the case while ruling that the record contained insufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact related to Kitchen’s claims.

The Fifth Circuit reversed. The appellate court held that the record, especially the affidavits from the former prisoners, “presented genuine issues of material fact from which a jury could conclude that excessive force was used against the deceased.” The affidavits specifically created genuine factual issues concerning the need for force, the relationship between that need and the amount of force used, the threat “reasonably perceived” by the guards and any effort to temper the forcefulness of their response to the perceived threat.

Rejecting the defendants’ assertion that the identity of the person applying force must be proven for a valid claim of bystander liability, the Court of Appeals held that the fact that the guards were present when force was applied was sufficient to raise the issue. Therefore, while upholding the dismissal of other claims – including a claim of municipal liability against Dallas County – the Fifth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the excessive force and bystander liability claims and remanded the case with instructions to determine the application of direct liability, bystander liability and qualified immunity to each individual defendant.

The case remains pending before the district court. See: Kitchen v. Dallas County, 759 F.3d 468 (5th Cir. 2014).


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Related legal case

Kitchen v. Dallas County